Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials Previewing U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit

The White House

Via Teleconference

(September 27, 2022)

8:10 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Thanks, everyone, for joining. I know it’s later in the evening for those of us in the U.S. And sorry, again, for starting a little bit late. So, this is the NSC press background call to preview the first U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit.

This call is on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.” And the contents of the call are embargoed until tomorrow, Wednesday, September 28th, 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

For your awareness and not for reporting, our speaker on the call is [senior administration official]. And [senior administration official] is going to go through some of the things to expect over the coming days. But of course, we will have more to say on that as the summit progresses.

So, with that, I’ll turn it over to [senior administration official].

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official], and thank you all for joining. I really appreciate it. I’ll try to give you all some context and then happy to take a couple of questions as we go forward.

So, as [senior administration official] indicated, we wanted to give you a little bit of notice because, starting tomorrow, the President and senior officials here in the United States and the government will be hosting the Pacific Island leaders for the first-ever summit of its kind to be held in Washington at the White House, the State Department, and other places around the capital.

The larger context is, you know, when the President was elected, came to power, was putting together his NSC, one of the things that was clear is that he wanted an effort that would basically seek to step up our game and coordinate our larger engagement and investments across the Indo-Pacific.

Now, I don’t need to tell you all that the primary focus of that has been in East Asia — has been Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, India, issues associated with the Quad and the like. And sometimes in that Indo-Pacific formulation, the region that gets short shrift is the Pacific. And so, from the moment we arrived, we started to do a kind of inventory of our engagement across the Pacific. And I must say, I think we found a lot of areas where the United States needed to do more.

We recognized that we had powerful, strategic, historical, moral, humanitarian, environmental interests across the Pacific; many good friends and supporters and allies who had been with us for decades at the United Nations and a variety of forum — and these are all countries that they wanted the United States to be more actively engaged.

And so, we’ve done a number of engagements throughout the region — Secretary Blinken, Deputy Secretary Sherman, myself, others, Department of Defense, Commerce, and elsewhere — really largely on listening tours to hear from the perspectives of the Pacific about areas that they want the United States to do more.

And so, what you’ve seen over the course of the last little while is some evidence of this. And you’ll, I think, see further steps over the course of the next couple of days.

Last week, Secretary Blinken hosted a new initiative called Partners of the Blue Pacific. And I’ll just give you a little bit of taste of that because it’ll help set the context for what’s coming.

I think we recognize that for us to be effective to deal with, in many respects, with the daunting challenges of the Pacific — climate change, health concerns, education, training, jobs, challenges associated with recovering from COVID, overfishing, unexploded ordinance from the Second World War — the list is long. For us to be able to grapple and deal with those effectively, it not only required the United States to work more constructively across every element of our government, but also required us working closely with allies and partners.

And so, the Partnership of the Blue Pacific really is an effort for the United States to work with likeminded states to align strategies, to kind of test best practices, to work together to up our game on specific issues like climate.

And so we worked closely over the last many months with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Great Britain — traditional partners that we’ve worked for many years, for decades in the Pacific.

And then, last week, we added to that group Germany and Canada, and then more active engagement from South Korea. So that the idea here is to get countries who have been interested and have been focused but to step up their game to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement as a whole.

And so, meeting last week with Pacific Island leaders and foreign ministers, the Partners of the Blue Pacific basically launched an associated set of initiatives that are designed to complement the strategic document of the Pacific, which is called the Blue Pacific Framework, which is really, for the next 20 or 30 years, what they hope to accomplish. And so, we’ve sought to align our strategy to meet their goals and objectives.

With that initiative launched, again, as I indicated, the President is looking forward to hosting the Pacific leaders here in Washington over the course of the next two days. Before that, tomorrow, the government, the White House will be releasing a specific Pacific strategy for the first time, and this specific strategy is meant to complement the earlier release of the Indo-Pacific strategy.

The purpose of this document is to make it obviously consistent with the goals and objectives of our larger framing, but this is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole. So it has many lines of effort about how to organize the disparate elements of the U.S. government towards tackling, again, issues like climate change, training, issues associated with fishing, investment in technology. I can go on — we can talk more about that if you’d like.

Over the course of the next two days, what we will see is a broad engagement across the U.S. government. The first initiatives, the meetings will be held and hosted by the State Department. Secretary Blinken will welcome the leaders. There will be briefings from Secretary Kerry and engagements on climate. Secretary Raimondo will come to talk about some specific initiatives that we’ll be taking in the Pacific. The Peace Corps will be there. Our new investment arm in the DFC will give a presentation about areas that we want to work in the Pacific.

We’ll also have a dinner hosted by the Commandant of the Coast Guard; our national security advisor will be there. We have a substantial set of initiatives that we want to launch that involve Coast Guard activities in the Pacific. And they are, in many respects, our most important element before deployment in dealing with a whole host of challenges in the Pacific.

We’ll have, the following day, a major event at the Chamber of Commerce when the leaders will have an opportunity to engage with a broad array of business groups ranging from tourism, to travel, to energy, to technology, to essentially talk about how U.S. business groups can be more actively engaged.

We’ll have — the President will have an engagement in the afternoon. But, over lunch, Speaker Pelosi and other key players on Capitol Hill will host the leaders for lunch and we’ll listen to them about their hopes for congressional engagement going forward. And then the President will engage directly with the leaders in the afternoon. And the summit will wrap up with a gala dinner for the leaders and the President at the White House on Thursday evening.

So this is a — we’ve done meetings like this with the Pacific leaders before. They’ve normally been about an hour long in Hawaii or elsewhere. We’ve never done anything like this. This is unprecedented.

The President and the Secretary of State will be basically unveiling tomorrow and Thursday substantial new initiatives, new funding that will affect every element of government purpose, from our compact negotiations, to the Peace Corps, to USAID.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, but I just want to say that this summit is quite a while in the making and we believe it will be a substantial investment. And our hope is, given the consultations that we’ve been doing with partners on Capitol Hill, this is meant to be a bipartisan effort. I think one of the concerns in the Pacific is that we’ve seen initiatives launched and sometimes they wither. I think our hope is to sustain this.

We recognize the importance of the Pacific. We celebrate the 70th anniversary of Guadalcanal — one of the most important defining battles of — thinking about American purpose and global politics, 70 years ago. We recognize the security imperatives in the Pacific.

But our goal over the next couple of days, fundamentally, is to meet the Pacific Islanders where they live. They’ve made clear to us that they want us as partners on, again, the biggest issue, which they view as existential, climate change; issues associated with the health of their economies; recovery from COVID; and dealing with some of the tyrannies of distance that have been so difficult, in many respects, across the Pacific.

So we understand the challenges and the President is looking forward to welcoming each of the leaders, many of whom are making their first visits to the White House in Washington, D.C.

[Senior administration official], I’ve gone on a little too long, but that gives folks a sense of the larger framing and then what we hope to accomplish the next couple of days. Thank you.

Q Thanks so much for doing this, [senior administration officials]. I wanted to ask: How many countries are going to be participating in the summit? Can you name some of them? Will the Solomon Islands be among those who are arriving, who are coming?

And also I wanted to ask — I know you don’t want to get too far ahead, but can you share some of the deliverables? For example, will there be any type of visa extension among the list? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, great, thank you. So all the Pacific nations have been invited. Two of the French territories have been invited, and all the compact states will be present as well.

Guam will be a member of the U.S. delegation. We’re pleased with that given their important role, and they will be actively part of the U.S. government effort at the State Department.

The Solomons have been here. They were here at the Partnership of the Blue Pacific and they’ve been deeply engaged in our efforts over the last couple of days, and we expect them to be actively engaged in our meetings over the next few days.

Look, we have a number of things that we’re going to be engaging on trade, on aid and assistance, on security. And really, I think it’s best for me not to get ahead of ourselves. We will be giving you a full briefing as this rolls out over the course of the next day or so. But we’re pleased with the participation.

These leaders have to come a long way. They’re difficult connections. It’s challenging. Travel in the Pacific post-COVID is very challenging. So we’re very grateful at how many folks have shown up, and there appears to be substantial interest and focus and expectation.

Q Thank you. Thank you, [senior administration official]. Thanks, [senior administration official]. As you pointed out with your topper, this is an area that’s been given short shrift over years. And this isn’t just the last President to this President. And I guess my question is basically if the U.S. is back but for how long. For example, Secretary Blinken was the first Secretary of State, I think, to visit Fiji in almost 37 years. Why should this region have confidence now that the U.S. will be engaged beyond this President?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, first of all, let me just say thank you for the question. I think it is essential that the United States approach the really enormous tasks that you described with a degree of humility. And I think in all of our meetings, we begin by saying, “Look, you know, we need to do more, and we need to learn the lessons of what has worked in the past and what has not.”

I think I would just point to a few things that give me some comfort on the essential questions that you asked. The first is that at every step along the way, we have briefed our partners on Capitol Hill extensively on new assistance efforts, on new commitments, and we have found uniform bipartisan support.

And so in a deeply divided, often adversarial town, we have found generally that the Indo-Pacific is one area where Democrats and Republicans can make common cause. And I believe that those elements have been apparent for some time, and I have some confidence that they will be sustained. That’s number one.

Number two is that the demand signal from the region — not just the Northeast Asia, traditional partners, Australia, New Zealand, India — the demand signal extends in the Pacific, and it’s louder and clearer than it ever has been. And I think the United States is a responsible country and understands the need for deeper, more sustained American engagement.

And third, I think we have to be confident that over time that we learn and that we recognize that this lack of follow-through, particularly in the Pacific, the sense that many of these foundational programs — I’ll give you one, just quick aside if I could.

I’ve traveled extensively in the Pacific. I think I’ve been to all the islands many times. And almost every time, I hear a story about how a young American volunteer, a Peace Corps person, someone that was working as a doctor, someone who had assisted in a technical project had made a difference in the lives of a Pacific Islander.

And oftentimes, they tell those stories with some degree of sadness and nostalgia. And I think it has certainly inspired me — and you will see, again, over the next couple of days, we have substantial education initiatives. We believe that we have lapsed in our efforts to engage rising leaders across the Pacific. In American institutions, we want to do more there as well.

And so, I can’t deny that this is not a concern. And in every meeting that we have with the Pacific, they raise it. And I think it’s one of those things that the only way it can be dispelled is not through talk but through action. And all I can tell you is that the Biden administration, the President himself is going to do his part.

Q Thank you. Just a couple of questions. Can you talk a little bit more about what the Coast Guard plans to do to help the Pacific Islands? And then is the Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sogavare, is he actually going to attend the summit over the next couple of days or is he sending someone in in his stead?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, to the best of my knowledge, he will participate. So, the Solomons have been actively engaged in all the efforts that we’ve been involved with, Demetri. And so, the information I have currently — he is in Washington. And so, our expectation is that all the delegations that are here will participate and they’ve been actively engaged and seemed pleased with the program and what we’ve laid out and what we’d like to accomplish.

So the Coast Guard, Demetri, does so many different things, and we are working on an ambitious set of initiatives that would increase the Peace Corps footprint and activities in the Pacific. We’ll have more to say about that over time. Obviously, as you know, those activities require support on Capitol Hill; those conversations are underway. But even existing efforts in the Peace Corps have proved to be deeply significant.

So let me give you an example. The world’s last healthy tuna pods, some of the last and, really, richest and healthiest fishing reserves on the planet are found in the Pacific. But they have been ravaged, frankly, by illegal fishing, giant fishing combines that come through and just clean out, illegally, ocean space in the territorial waters of countries. Because many of these countries do not have very much capacity, the United States, working with partners, is seeking to address those issues.

So, Demetri, as you recall, we rolled out a Maritime Domain Awareness initiative as part of the Quad. Part of this is to provide space-based capabilities that will allow ships that turn off their transponders to be tracked, even when they seek not to be noticed. And then the ability then to vector ships directly rather than having to search vast areas with very little notice on where this illegal fishing is occurring, that’s a very significant step in this very challenging battle.

But what we also find with many of these island nations — they have just a couple of ships, sometimes Coast Guard, that cannot go out into 200 miles from island shores in uncertain waters to prosecute actions against illegal fishing. And so what the United States Coast Guard has done has developed a program called the Shiprider program where if a national of that country from the fish and wildlife or one of their maritime agencies is onboard and there are special legal provisions that are followed — this is called the Shiprider Agreement — it allows a U.S. Coast Guard vessel then to prosecute illegal fishing activities.

And what we have found is that our squadrons that are based in Fiji and basically ply the waters of the Pacific have been incredibly effective at assisting in the battle against illegal fishing. And they are probably the most welcome maritime group in the Pacific more generally. Everywhere I’ve gone in the Pacific, I’ve been really impressed at how the leadership engages and supports the Coast Guard.

I’ll give you a sense: I was there a couple of months ago. We met the President of Fiji, President Bainimarama, on a Coast Guard cutter that was in port in Fiji. And he was just amazed by how incredible our crew was, how much they represented the United States, and how much their mission supported the economic vitality of Fiji.

That’s a long answer, but in many respects, the security challenges in the Pacific are not just addressed by big Navy, but also Coast Guard activities are enormously important. And that’s one of the reasons why the Coast Guard commandant will be hosting all the leaders in the beautiful new Coast Guard headquarters tomorrow night over dinner.

Q Hi there. Thanks for doing this. I’m not sure if you’ve seen the report. Just two questions, sorry. The first is: There’s a report out of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that the Solomon Islands is signaling that it won’t sign on to an 11-point declaration that you guys wanted to sign with Pacific Island nations. I’m just wondering if you might be able to comment on that. I know you haven’t really detailed what that might be. But, obviously, if Solomon Islands is kind of sticking out on this, it might be a bit awkward.

And the other thing is: I’m just wondering if you could detail if there was any dollar figures attached to any of these announcements or if there were specific areas in particular — (inaudible) COVID recovery or vaccines or specific healthcare programs — that would be great.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Excellent. These are all really good questions.

So, we will have specific dollar numbers; we will be releasing those tomorrow. I will simply say: Unlike sometimes in the past, this is new money. And you will have seen just in recent months a number of steps that have been taken. One has been on the conclusion of the Tuna Treaty. That’s one of the most important initiatives in the Pacific. We’ve dramatically increased our support and engagement to ensure that that treaty was successfully concluded.

We have given our ambassador, for the negotiation with the Compact states, new authorities, new capability to be able — I think we’re confident that we’re going to be able to continue these important relations. We’ll have more to talk about that tomorrow. And we will talk specifically about programs and agencies and specific budget numbers when we release our factsheet.

And I would just simply say that we’ve had — look, I’ve been involved in, I don’t know, dozens, hundreds of discussions on joint statements. I would simply say that this has been very productive. We’ve had very good consultations with Pacific Island neighbors. We’ve got more work to do. But the overall effort, I think, has made clear that there is substantial areas of overlap with respect to what the United States wants to accomplish and do going forward and what the Pacific Island leaders expect.

And so I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I think those consultations have been productive and they are ongoing.

Q Yes, hi. Thanks for taking the question. So you kind of touched on it there with the Solomon Islands report coming out of here in Australia. I wonder, can you say any more about this declaration and whether it’s intended as kind of, I guess, alternative to China’s failed regional security pact?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, look, so — so there’ll be a number of things that you’ll see over the next couple of days.

First, as I indicated, tomorrow, we will be releasing our Pacific Strategy Report, which lays out how the President wants a unified government effort to work on several lines of effort, whether it’s in issues related to climate change or investments or illegal fishing. So it’s very detailed, and that will be coming out tomorrow.

Second, there will be a factsheet, which is exactly what you would be looking for — the many initiatives that will be launched and specifics about each of them. I would simply say that the Pacific — there’s an incredible diversity of engagement, and so that factsheet will be dense, and there’ll be a lot of material in it, and hopefully it will answer a lot of your questions.

We are also working towards what I would call a “joint statement,” which really is about a larger vision in which the United States and Pacific Island nations sign up to some joint endeavors, which are important. And so discussions are ongoing in that. We’ve had a huge amount of enthusiastic support, but like in all discussions, there’s more work to be done. And we expect that to continue tomorrow before the leaders sit down later in the day.

So I would just simply say that I think this kind of interaction is not unusual. And it is the first time that we’ve done something like this with Pacific Islanders. And so we’re committed, we’re patient, and we are fully committed to working in close consultation with Pacific Island nations on the issues that we both — we all think are critical going forward.

MODERATOR: Great. All right. Well, thanks, everybody, for joining. That was our last question.

As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.” And the contents of the call are embargoed until tomorrow, 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

As our senior administration official said, we’ll have more coming on deliverables and other initiatives that we’ll be putting out over the coming days. So we’ll make sure to keep you posted on that. Thanks. And have a nice —

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I can say, [moderator] is really good about this, guys, and I promise that we will make ourselves available for you. As we develop each of these things, we’ll work with you to make sure it’s out there so you’ll have full visibility into it.

And many thanks to [moderator]. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks, [senior administration official]. Thank you, everyone. Have a good night.

8:40 P.M. EDT

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